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The ‘North-East’ Map of Delhi

Duncan McDuie-Ra

Migration from the north-east frontier to Indian cities igration from north-east India to large metropolitan
has increased rapidly in the last decade. Limited cities like Bangalore, Kolkata, Mumbai, and more so
Delhi has increased rapidly in the last decade. Lim-
livelihood prospects, changing social aspirations and
ited livelihood prospects, changing social aspirations, and
sporadic armed conflicts push migrants out of the armed conflicts (in certain areas) push migrants out of the
region. Experiences of racism, violence and region. The transformation of Indian cities through neo-liberal
discrimination are crucial in shaping their lives. But this reforms have led to rapidly expanding employment opportuni-
ties in the retail and services sector, labour recruitment, and
paper challenges the notion that north-easterners are
growing networks based on clan, kin and ethnic ties pull mi-
solely “victims of the city”. Instead it analyses the ways in grants to particular jobs, neighbourhoods and colleges. The
which they create a sense of place through migrants’ experience in these cities includes racism, violence
neighbourhoods, food, faith, and protest. This and discrimination.
While these experiences are crucial in shaping their lives
“north-east map of Delhi” allows the migrants to
this paper focuses on the ways they create a sense of place for
survive the city and to construct a cosmopolitan themselves in Delhi. In doing so it challenges the notion that
identity at odds with the ways they are stereotyped in the north-easterners are solely “victims of the city” and in-
the Indian mainstream. stead analyses the ways migrants create a sense of place
through neighbourhoods, food, faith, and protest. This is re-
ferred to as the “north-east map of Delhi”: the collection of
places where north-easterners live, worship, socialise, cele-
brate, and establish everyday patterns and rituals. This allows
them to survive the city and to construct a cosmopolitan iden-
tity at odds with the ways they are stereotyped in the Indian
mainstream. This does not make racism and violence less real,
but puts emphasis back on the agency of north-east migrants
in creating small spaces of their own in Delhi.
This paper is the result of ethnographic fieldwork carried
out in Delhi in 2010 and 2011. It also builds upon eight years of
ethnographic research in the north-east itself. During my field-
work I had conversations with north-east migrants every day for
almost three months. Some of these conversations were brief.
On a university campus I would meet a north-east migrant and
ask where they were from, what they were doing in Delhi, and
how they experienced it. That would take a few minutes and
we might never meet again. Other migrants I saw almost every
day. If they lived in my neighbourhood we would talk while
passing in the street, while cooking, or when I went to their
flat in the evenings. There were all manners of interactions in
between these extremes. There were people I met three or four
times and with whom I had very unstructured conversations
and others I met once but spoke for an hour around very spe-
cific topics. I also travelled to parts of Delhi where north-east
migrants were working. I was able to meet them while they
were at work and often outside work. This extended the neigh-
Duncan McDuie-Ra ( is with the University bourhoods I visited and expanded my contacts in the city.
of New South Wales and author of North-east Migrants in Delhi: Race, As an Australian, I was seen as a distant outsider, removed
Refuge and Retail.
from the tensions between north-easterners and Indians,
Economic & Political Weekly EPW july 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 30 69

enabling respondents to speak openly and frankly to me and Delhi is constant and periods of stay vary dramatically
about their experiences. Furthermore, I was not associated from a few months to several years.
with any particular ethnic or tribal group, and this was an The majority of the north-east migrants come to Delhi after
advantage when discussing intra-migrant issues and ethnic secondary school without their parents, though some migrate
tensions from home. More often than not I benefited from with siblings. Both men and women migrate to Delhi in more
having known a respondent’s relative or flatmate back home or less equal proportions. The majority of them working and
in the north-east or from having visited their hometown. Re- studying in Delhi are in their 20s. Older respondents in their
spondents would often express surprise to meet a foreigner 30s and 40s include those who came to Delhi in their 20s and
who knew of their home place, and this helped friendships stayed, those who came to Delhi from other cities such as
form quickly. My gender played an interesting role in the Bangalore or Kolkata or from abroad for work, and those who
research. I often met with female respondents one-to-one in came directly from the north-east to work in public and pri-
public and where they lived. We would frequently go out to vate employment. There is a small but growing number of
eat or wander around shops and markets. People would stare migrants who have partners and children with them (some of
at us, sometimes passing crude comments in Hindi and the latter born in Delhi), though the majority leave their fami-
sometimes in English. Both men and women indulged in this. lies back home. In sum, migrants include those who have come
I also spent a great deal of time with the men hanging out on to Delhi to work, those who have come to work and study,
the street and in parks, and inside flats, playing cards, or those who have come only to study, and those that began do-
listening to music. As can be expected when respondents were ing one but have now started doing the other. There is also a
among friends with whom they were comfortable, they talked smaller group doing neither.
more openly – this was not obviously determined by gender In interviews and conversations migrants gave a number of
but did seem to rest on ethnicity. All of the respondents reasons for leaving the north-east. For instance, respondents
quoted in this article have been given pseudonyms. from Manipur often cited ongoing violence and insecurity as
reasons to migrate, while for respondents from Arunachal
North-East Migrants in Delhi Pradesh this was not an issue. Similarly, respondents from the
Migration from the north-east to Delhi has increased dramati- same location might give very different reasons for migrating.
cally in the last decade. While there are more migrants leaving With limited space to delve into these variations the following
the north-east than ever before since the mid-2000s, aca- general reasons for migrating were given: refuge from con-
demic and media attention to this factor is scarce. Scholars flict, changing attitudes towards Indian citizenship, poor edu-
have long focused on migration into the region from other cation options at home, and better connectivity between the
parts of India and neighbouring countries seen as fuelling frontier and metros. However, virtually all migrants discussed
ethno-nationalist politics and insurgency (Bhaumik 2009; the availability of work in retail, hospitality, and call centres as
Hazarika 2000). Migration from the north-east to Delhi has the major draw. Job opportunities in the north-east are limited
taken place since Independence, yet given the distance by insurgency and by a number of associated difficulties such
between the north-east and Delhi most tribal migrants mov- as corruption, low levels of investment, capital flight, and the
ing to urban areas chose towns in their own tribal areas or proliferation of illegal and semi-legal economies. Alongside
within the north-east region. Historically, those migrating work, the opportunity to study outside the region is a major
outside the region went to Kolkata and Siliguri in West Bengal. impetus for migration. The availability of work means that
With the top universities in the country and also the promi- migrants from the north-east can support themselves while
nent preparatory courses for taking the Indian Administra- studying, or support family members to study. With limited
tive Services (IAS) exams, Delhi attracted the wealthy and employment prospects, education is sought after to gain an
educated from the north-east. This group of migrants continues edge in labour markets back in the north-east, especially in the
to come to Delhi but it is the dramatic growth of migrants from public sector, and to meet changing aspirations and consumer
other backgrounds coming for work in retail, hospitality, and desires. Furthermore, as north-east migrants have begun to
call centres that is most remarkable and visible to residents create a niche in certain labour markets in cities, labour
and visitors to the city. recruiters are travelling to the north-east to offer jobs in call
As migration to Delhi does not cross international borders centres, restaurants, hotels, and spas making compelling cases
and as most north-east migrants do not own property or capital to leave the region and normalising migration as a rite of
in Delhi (though this is changing) their population is not passage for the region’s youth.
accurately recorded. A survey released by the North-East Support The neo-liberal transformation of Delhi, often critiqued for
Centre and Helpline (NESCH) in early 2011 puts the number of excluding the working poor and minority communities, has
migrants outside the north-east at 4,14,850 (2011: 10). The created opportunities for north-east migrants. The latter covet
same report cites a 12-fold increase in migration out of the the employment opportunities in the spaces of neo-liberal cap-
north-east from 2005 to 2011. Of the migrants leaving the ital, and employers in these spaces desire north-east labour –
north-east, 48% migrate to Delhi, making for a population of especially in restaurants, shopping malls and call centres. As
around 2,00,000. Survey figures are likely to be underesti- Brosius’ study of consumerism in Delhi has shown, malls are
mates, as movement back and forth between the north-east designed to satisfy the desire of the upper and aspiring middle
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classes to “live abroad in India” (2010: 65). To truly experience they look different from the other peoples of India. They are
this kind of status-driven consumption consumer spaces not viewed as yet another ethnic group in the vast Indian
serving these classes are designed to project a global aes- milieu; they are an exceptional population. As such, they are
thetic; an aesthetic reproduced by north-east migrant labour. subject to different perceptions and treatment than other
North-east migrants find work in clothing stores, sports stores, groups. This makes it “difficult for them to escape from their
spas and cosmetic stores. In restaurants, they work as wait ethnic identity if they wish to” (Eriksen 2002: 6).
staff and maître d’, as well as in kitchens. In restaurants and For most respondents racism in Delhi is expressed by the
spas seeking an east Asian aesthetic, they are dressed in epithet “chinky”. They are constantly subject to the epithet as
cheongsams, the tight fitting Chinese evening dress, hanbok, they move about the city, in their workplace from colleagues,
the Korean traditional dress, or a pastiche of east Asian cloth- from other students in their classes at university, and even
ing styles. The highly orientalised labour force constructs a from friends. Importantly, “chinky” is not used by north-
space that is in Delhi but not of Delhi; perfect for the “world- easterners to refer to themselves or each other. In other words,
class” aspirations of the middle classes. As a 23-year-old male they have not claimed ownership of the epithet. Other groups
migrant from Nagaland put it, “for Indians it is like going to are subject to this derogatory term: Bhutanese nationals,
Bangkok for shopping. We look the same but some of us can Burmese refugees and migrants, Chinese nationals, Ladakhis,
speak Hindi.” Nepalis from certain ethnic groups (Limbus, Magyars and
Call centres flourish in Delhi, especially in Gurgaon and Rais), and Tibetans. All of these groups are present in Delhi.
Noida (Dupont 2011: 541). Mirchandani’s (2004) research in They share some of the same places of work, education, and
Delhi call centres serving North American voice-to-voice neighbourhoods as the north-east migrants, but for the most
clients shows that workers in call centres are trained to “neu- part they occupy different niches in the city.
tralise” their accents and conduct “locational masking”. North- Epithets matter because they reflect embedded stereotypes
east migrants are well equipped to play the neutral role. Most about north-easterners. Their stereotyping is layered. In other
migrants from the hill areas attend English medium schooling words, the stereotypes that north-easterners are subject to in
and literacy rates in tribal areas are high. English is also the Delhi have multiple layers, multiple effects, and multiple ori-
lingua franca between different ethnic groups. Many north- gins. Stereotypes are not always negative and have enabled
east migrants do not have typically Indian accented English. In the growth of the labour niche for north-east migrants, yet
addition, many of them are unmarried and without children north-easterners do not have control over the ways they are
enabling them to work shifts timed to serve Australian, Euro- represented whether positive or negative. They are cast as
pean, and North American business hours. As such they have backward and exotic. Colonial era classifications have been re-
become desirable as a “flexible” and well-qualified workforce produced in the systems of governing the north-east region in
for the call centre industry. contemporary India (Barbora 2008; Zou 2009) and in popular
North-east migration also gives insight into the growing representations of north-easterners – especially tribals – in
private education industry in the city. Delhi’s private IAS museums, tourism campaigns, guidebooks, schoolbooks, and
coaching schools are advertised heavily in the north-east. national parades (Patil 2011). In almost all of these cases trib-
There are similar coaching schools throughout the country but als are represented using the three “un” myths discussed by
there is the feeling among respondents that the ones in Delhi Echtner and Prasad (2003): “unchanged”, “unrestrained” and
are better. Some respondents came from the north-east espe- “uncivilised”. This carries over into everyday life in the city
cially for these tuition schools, while other attended IAS tui- and tribals must constantly challenge notions that they are
tion while studying at university or while working. from a premodern society “untouched” by modernity. Further,
they are cast as anti-national. Reporting on violence and
Racism and Violence “terrorism” in the north-east is one of the only times that the
North-east migrants experience high levels of racism in region and its people are mentioned in the mainstream media
Delhi. They are seen as racially distinct from other groups (Hasan 2004, 2009). Here the backward frontier-dweller
that make up India’s diverse citizenry and physical appear- meets the violent anti-national separatist bent on destroying
ance is central in interactions with members of other com- India. Most significantly, they are cast as immoral. This affects
munities. Features denoting Tai, Tibeto-Burman, and Mon- north-east women and men in different ways. The women are
Khmer lineages mark them as separate. In fact, race routinely cast as loose in morals and sexually promiscuous. Many of
leads to the nationality and citizenship of migrants being them work in highly visible occupations where their sexuality
questioned by other city dwellers. India contains many com- is emphasised. They live in shared houses, most are not yet
munities earmarked as “others” based on religion, caste, and married, they move about the city for work without male chap-
even ethnicity, yet the nationality and origin of these commu- erons almost always on public transport, those who work have
nities are not questioned at every turn. They can “blend in” to some financial independence (subjecting them to speculation
the heartland (rarely completely) in ways that north-east that they achieved this independence through “immoral”
migrants cannot. This is not to argue that these “others” do not means), most of them dress very differently to (certain) Indian
face discrimination and violence; rather, north-east migrants women, and they socialise with friends of the same sex
feel their experiences of racism are distinct. To put it simply, and opposite sex. North-east men are also subject to some
Economic & Political Weekly EPW july 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 30 71

of the loose and immoral assumptions but are also cast as a rough map that most north-east migrants will recognise
heavy drinkers, unpredictable, and potentially violent even if the locations are imprecise. It must also be pointed out
(McDuie-Ra 2012). that the north-east place-making is far from harmonious. Ten-
Racism manifests in discrimination, harassment and vio- sions between different ethnic groups, between different
lence, as well as limited access to justice and recognition of political positions, between migrants from different class
rights. Violence is the most telling manifestation of racism in background all manifest in Delhi. However, the shared experi-
Delhi. It is imperative to recognise that the problem lies not ence of the city and of the mainstream society cultivates a
only in the violence itself but also in the way the police treat shared sense of place, which despite many cracks enables the
violent incidents, and the ways in which the discourse around reproduction of difference and a shared identity among north-
violence blames the north-easterners for inviting violent east migrants.
encounters (Puri 2006). In the infamous pamphlet Security The north-east map is a way of knowing and seeing Delhi
Tips for North-East Students/Visitors in Delhi issued by the based on a very specific experience of the city. North-easterners
Delhi Police, north-east women are advised to act and dress work in certain occupations, live in certain neighbourhoods,
more conservatively. The pamphlet reads: “Revealing dress to eat certain foods that most other communities do not, practise
be avoided. Avoid lonely road/bylane when dressed scantily. minority religions (for the most part), and experience security
Dress according to sensitivity of the local populace” (Delhi and safety in certain ways affecting mobility and everyday
Police 2005). Respondents found this pamphlet and its senti- decision-making. Many other people in the city share some of
ments amusing but also instructive of the ways they are these things, but only north-easterners navigate through all of
viewed. North-easterners, and especially women, are held them. In other words, you may find a non-north-easterner
responsible for the sexual harassment and violence they working in retail and going to church, but he/she unlikely to
endure while the perpetrators are largely ignored. live in a north-east neighbourhood and roam the city seeking
Respondents are adamant that the day-to-day violence that bamboo shoots or spend their weekends practising dances for
characterises their time in Delhi is continually downplayed in aoleang monyu.1 There are four main components of the map
the media, by the authorities, and by non-north-easterners. (excluding workplaces and places of study): neighbourhoods,
Delhi has a reputation as a violent city. One of the difficulties food, religion, and protest.
in discussing violence experienced by north-easterners in
Delhi is the counterclaim that Delhi is a violent city and no (i) Neighbourhoods: Arjun Appadurai (1996:183) conceptual-
community is immune. When considered from the perspective ises neighbourhoods as localities that are relational, contex-
of north-east migrants such an argument is weak. As one tual, and also fragile. He posits that “neighbourhoods are in-
respondent from Nagaland put it, “they will always go on herently what they are because they are opposed to something
about Delhi being unsafe. They think it is not different for us. else and derive from other, already produced neighbour-
But it is. We are walking targets.” hoods”. Thus for Appadurai, neighbourhoods require “the con-
tinuous construction, both practical and discursive, of an eth-
Beyond Victims: The North-East Map noscape (necessarily non-local) against which local practices
Discrimination, harassment, and violence combined with dif- are imagined to take place” (1996: 184). In other words, place-
ficult economic circumstances, particularly related to inflated making in neighbourhoods depends upon the construction of
housing costs, make life in Delhi very challenging. Nonethe- both locality in a certain space and the recognition of a non-
less, it is important to go beyond the notion of north-east local space outside the locality inhabited by others. For north-
migrants as solely “victims of the city” to focus on the ways east migrants, this means that creating neighbourhoods de-
they exercise agency to navigate, negotiate and ultimately pends upon place-making in that particular locality as well as
survive and even thrive in the city in ways that are mostly recognising the difference between that locality, other locali-
invisible to other communities. The concept of place-making, ties and the city more broadly. In effect this means creating
drawn from Henri Lefebvre’s (1991) dialectical approach to places that are “not like other parts of Delhi”.
everyday life and the social production of space, provides a North-easterners live in north and south Delhi, and in
loose framework for analysing the ways north-eastern smaller numbers in east and west Delhi. The north is mostly
migrants create place from the bottom-up. Place-making home to students, while the south is home to those working
occurs when a material space is inhabited and allows patterns and studying, though this distinction is dissolving as the
and rhythms of life to develop. It is here that the landscape of demographic profile of migrants shifts. In the north, migrants
Delhi is being reshaped in small and subtle ways. North- live in the neighbourhoods around Delhi University and close
easterners have a presence in the city beyond simply serving to the GTB Nagar metro station. In the south there are a range
the economy. They occupy a set of overt and concealed places of locations. Green Park, Munirka, Safdarjung Enclave, and
where they live, pray, socialise, celebrate and establish every- Safdarjung Development Area are close to Jawaharlal Nehru
day patterns and rituals (Freidmann 2007). The connected- University (JNU) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT).
ness of these places form the “north-east map of Delhi” simply, Duala Kuan, Moti Bagh (south), and Shanti Niketan are popular
the north-east way of knowing the city. Obviously, there is no areas close to Delhi University’s south campus. Other areas in
single north-east map of Delhi. However, it is possible to sketch the south include Kotla Mubarak and South Extension I and II.
72 july 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 30 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

Munirka has become the main hub for north-east migrants, square in different directions. Vendors peddle vegetables from
especially new arrivals. Their growing presence can be tracked carts parked along the back of the school wall. Residents sit
through the opening of shops selling food, clothes, and air around the square on low concrete walls of different heights,
tickets run by north-east migrants. plastic armchairs, and wooden stools. A few autorickshaws are
The lines between public and private can become blurred parked at the end of the only alleyway leading out to one of the
in these neighbourhoods. Flats are small and many are win- feeder roads. North-east migrants spend time hanging out in
dowless, so the space between flats, landings and stairwells, the market square. It has become a meeting place, a place to
and the streets and alleyways of the neighbourhoods become stop by on the way home or the way out, a place to gossip, to
the spaces of encounter, especially in the very dense alley- kill time, to buy provisions, and to meet new arrivals from
ways of Humayanpur and Munirka. In fact, parts of Munirka home. At first glance there is very little to designate this as a
see so little natural light that a small open space where a distinctly north-east place. There are usually a few north-
number of alleyways intersect has been dubbed “the airport” easterners buying vegetables, eating at the Bhutia restaurant,
by migrants because you can see the sky. Migrants move be- or visiting the mobile phone shop. Yet as one becomes more
tween each other’s flats without knocking and many leave attuned to the rhythms of the neighbourhood it is clear that
their doors unlocked when they are inside. It is just like the square is busiest at night when migrants return from work
home. While it may be argued that all neighbourhoods pos- and wait for friends, buying food, or using the internet cafes.
ses these characteristics to some degree, this blurring of On Sundays the square fills with north-east migrants socialis-
space needs to be understood in the context of the enclosure ing after church, men in shirts and jackets and women in
of space in middle and upper class Delhi neighbourhoods dresses and high-heeled shoes. In the early mornings, migrants
where gates, security guards, and cars are the norm meet in the square chatting with one another while they wait
(Baviskar 2003). It is not just north-easterners resident in for colleagues to join them before setting off for work at the
these neighbourhoods but friends from other parts of the city call centre. Once a group is assembled they walk to the main
that drop by, socialise in the square, and wander between road to wait for the bus to collect them to travel to Gurgaon
apartments. Though clichéd, the neighbourhoods effectively or Noida. A similar scene is repeated for the night shift work-
function as an extension of the village and neighbourhood ers. In warm weather, migrants spent more and more time
life back home. North-east migrants are very rarely homeless outside, as flats are poorly ventilated and boiling hot, espe-
or live in illegal dwellings. Kin, clan, familial, and ethnic ties cially on the upper floors. Men wear short pants and women
ensure that migrants have a place to stay even if they have no wear short pants and skirts. During field research a number
money. Family members back in the north-east will go to of migrants said they would think carefully about wearing
great pains to ensure that their relatives can afford accom- these kinds of clothes outside the neighbourhood as they
modation, even if it is very modest. would likely be harassed, but in this area they felt com-
For a community racially distinct from the Indian main- fortable doing so.
stream, a sense of place comes from seeing north-east people
in the neighbourhood. Where they are physically present in (ii) Food: North-easterners cannot get by in Delhi without
the public spaces, the character of these neighbourhoods access to food from home and because this food is so distinct
evolves. North-east businesses are starting to open in these this involves skilled navigation of the city’s markets. North-
neighbourhoods: butchers, restaurants, DVD shops, clothes east food is far closer to food found in Burma, and in China
shops, hairdressers. This gives a sense of permanence or at (Yunnan). Respondents would constantly mention the centra-
the very least a longer term view of north-east migration to lity of food to their life in the city: lack of certain food is what
the city. Along with this comes a sense of safety. Alongside respondents missed most about home, being unable to get
this sense of safety is a sense of belonging. Importantly, the food is what they hated most about Delhi, sharing food is
sense of belonging is not to Delhi itself, but to the localities central to friendships, and being a Hmar, a Khasi, or a Nishi in
within Delhi, where a little piece of home is recreated. Home Delhi means being able to eat the food of home. Thus, know-
is not recreated through material space – which barely ing where to locate food is fundamental to north-east knowl-
resembles anywhere in the north-east, even its most dense edge of Delhi. Veterans of the city build this knowledge over
urban areas – but through the lived experience of north-east time and pass it on to newcomers. One of the enduring rites of
neighbourhoods. passage for young migrants in the city is learning where they
Neighbourhoods also contain ancillary places – what can find pork, beef, and bamboo shoots as well as the language
Friedmann refers to as “spaces of encounter”, that is public, and bargaining skills to locate food.
private, and semi-private places where people come together North-east food is varied and it is important not to over-
and “the daily rituals of life are performed” (2007: 272). In look the core differences, particularly between the cuisine of
Humayanpur, for example, the market square is a vibrant the valley areas and of the hill areas. However, it is equally
space of encounter. The space itself is not a square in a planned important to iterate that north-east food is very different
sense; it is just an empty area. It is enclosed on one side by the from food found in other parts of India – taking into account,
back of a school wall. On all other sides there are small shops of course, the dramatic diversity within the country. To avoid
at the base of apartment buildings. Alleyways lead off the constant qualifiers, the general eating habits of migrants
Economic & Political Weekly EPW july 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 30 73

living in Delhi will be referred to in this section. Ahom and In the valleys, all major religions are practised, though among
Meitei migrants are exceptions to some of these habits, yet the Ahoms and Meiteis Vaishnavite Hinduism is more promi-
Delhi is also full of “food rebels” from these communities nent. Christianity is making headway among the Meitei along
breaking taboos when they migrate. North-easterners eat a with a revivalist movement of Sanamahism and the persis-
lot of meat. Pork is common among all hill communities in tence of lai worship.3
the region and among many Ahoms and Meiteis. Alongside The north-east map of Delhi contains places where faith is
pork, an essential part of most cuisine is bamboo shoots, as practised and religion serves social and welfare functions.
well as chilli, fermented fish, yam, garlic, and ginger. In There are scores of these places around the city. Most promi-
several hill areas, people eat dog, much to the consternation nent against the backdrop of Delhi are churches. The size and
of others in India and farther afield. Hunting is an important membership of churches varies incredibly. Large churches
part of village life, and thus all manner of wild animals are function in very similar ways to churches in the north-east.
included in the diet from time to time. Snails are also The services can be fairly conservative, established denomi-
widely eaten. nations have their own premises (sometimes engulfing large
Central to the north-east map of Delhi is finding meat ven- parts of city blocks), and services are held in north-east
dors who can supply fresh pork, beef, and sometimes buff and languages and thus cater to a specific ethnic or tribal commu-
mutton. North-east migrants know the Malayali-speaking nity. Ministers in these churches are usually sent from the
pork vendors in the Indian National Army (INA) market, the north-east, and the increase in migration makes Delhi an
beef vendors in Nizauddin, and the other north-easterners important extension of home congregations to be supported
selling meat from small shops with giant freezers in Munirka and watched over.
or Humayanpur. For many migrants, being able to navigate This is in contrast to the many small churches operating
through these different negotiations and transactions is an throughout the north-east neighbourhoods of Delhi and close
immense source of pride. Travelling from one part of Delhi to to the university campuses. Their services are held in existing
another, entering neighbourhoods, bargaining in Hindi, and churches shared by other communities, in schools, in commu-
calling friends on the phone to inform them of where to find nity halls, and in rented rooms. Many of these small churches
the freshest meat on a particular day is important to demon- represent denominations less established in the north-east.
strating knowledge of Delhi’s diversity. As Zana, a 25-year-old Some of these churches started as breakaway churches from
male migrant from Nagaland noted, “You see, most people larger entities and in some cases from other small entities.
don’t know you can get all these things in Delhi. But we tribals, Some of these new churches hold services in English. This
we have to know.” gives them a pan-north-east congregation and also attracts
As migration has increased, there are several restaurants other Christians in Delhi – most notably African migrants,
serving north-east food in Delhi run by migrants. None of dalits, Nepali Christians, and Christians from Burma (mostly
these would classify as fine dining; most are a few plastic Chin, Kachin, and Karen refugees). The “new” churches are
tables in a small shop. There are a few exceptions like the the antithesis of the established churches and are chara-
“Naga Kitchen” in Green Park and a few of the more expensive cterised by casual clothes, younger preachers, live rock music,
Himalayan-themed restaurants. North-east migrants also and lots of social events.
know where to get Korean, Japanese, and Tibetan food. Many Another place-making phenomenon of note is the launch of
of these places employ north-east migrants and this helps new churches for small ethnic and tribal communities in
them to locate them in the first instance. As eating out is Delhi. In 2011, the Mara community, a tribal group in Mizoram
relatively expensive, cooking is important. In north-east and across the border in Burma numbering about 1,00,000
neighbourhoods where housing is crowded and the living people in total, opened the Mara Evangelical Church in west
areas are labyrinthine, neighbours get to know each other Delhi with a congregation of between 150 and 200 members,
quickly and often this begins by sharing food, cooking space, including Mara from India and from Burma. For small ethnic
and recipes. and tribal communities, making their own space for worship is
an important part of establishing themselves as a distinct
(iii) Religion: Discussing religion among north-east migrants group in Delhi. They are also places where communities
encounters problems similar to food choices. All major reli- divided by international and internal borders join one another
gions are practised in the north-east along with indigenous in a new place.
faiths, some of which are practised in tandem with major reli- Places of worship dot the Delhi landscape with small spaces
gions. In the hills, religion is not necessarily simple, but most that are (almost) wholly north-eastern. They enliven a sense of
communities in the hills have been at least partially converted belonging and an untethered link to home. As spaces of
to Christianity over the last century and a half (Brekke 2006; encounter, places of worship help to reinforce north-east iden-
Thong 2010). The notable exceptions are Arunachal Pradesh, tities, as with the Mara church, and fashion new ones, as with
where different tribal and ethnic communities follow different the pan-north-east evangelical churches held in basements in
faiths including indigenous faiths – most notably donyi-polo,2 Moti Bagh.
and Mahayana Buddhism – and Sikkim, where Hinduism, Alongside spirituality, these places of worship are also sites
Buddhism, and Christianity coexist and in some cases overlap. for networking and support. The role of religious communities
74 july 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 30 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

among migrant and diaspora communities is well studied and members from across the north-east community in Delhi
understood. Religious communities help newcomers find including members of tribal groups from Arunachal Pradesh
work, housing and contacts. As most north-eastern migrants and parts of Meghalaya who have had little direct experience
come to Delhi without their parents, religious communities of the Act. This is different from protests in the north-east
provide support for migrants when they are sick, when they that are usually contained in one location and feature only
have been subject to violence, when they have financial diffi- members of a particular community. This is reconfigured in
culties, and when there are problems back home. Respond- Delhi and reveals an emergent pan-north-east solidarity.
ents related incidents where churches helped raise money This identity is territorialised in a broader way. For migrants,
for surgical operations, emergency housing in the case of the AFSPA is a draconian law used against their region, not
domestic violence, alcohol rehabilitation, post-traumatic just their tribe or ethnic group. Individuals will protest
stress counselling, and for funerals back home. As few mi- against the AFSPA even when it does not affect their particular
grants are members of labour unions and personal insurance home area or tribe, but because it affects some part of the
is still a new concept in India, religious communities provide north-east.
a pool of resources, albeit often stretched thin, that enable Another example is unity in the face of racism and violence.
migrants to endure unexpected events in Delhi and back Respondents often discussed the ways racism brought them
home. Religious communities also provide moral guidance together. Chen, a student from Arunachal Pradesh, summed it
and in many cases moral policing – though not always wel- up nicely by saying, “North-east people don’t bond so much.
comed by migrants. But if you get a Nishi, a Khasi, and a Mizo in a room, all you
have to do is talk about racism. We all experience it every day.
(iv) Protest: Given the divisiveness of politics back home, It will get us together.” Nani, also from Arunachal Pradesh,
many migrants actively avoid engaging in politics, while made a similar point. She said few things bring north-east
others are politicised during their time in Delhi. In fact being migrants together, “but if there is violence, especially rapes,
in Delhi allows divisive politics of home to be tempered, allows then we will all come and protest. Our student unions usually
solidarity among north-easterners to be articulated, and most organise it. They link with each other.” A recent protest of note
importantly, allows Indian citizenship to be enacted by mak- came following the gang rape of a Mizo woman at gunpoint in
ing claims on national, state, and city governments. Protests November 2010. Up to 2,000 people are reported to have
capture the moments when migrants step out of small dis- marched, led by members of Mizo associations and church
tinct places and make claims in the less bounded spaces of groups and supported by the north-east community in Delhi.
Delhi’s public sphere. Protests by them in Delhi are becoming The woman was attacked after being dropped off in a north-
more common, suggesting a growing level of confidence east neighbourhood by the service vehicle from her workplace,
among migrants in voicing their discontent and advocating suggesting that the culprits were monitoring north-east locali-
for justice. ties looking for women returning home late at night. The
Most tribal and ethnic communities have their own associa- police handling of the incident and the failure of the call cen-
tions in Delhi. For example, Mizos have the Mizo Student tre to take responsibility for ensuring the safety of workers
Union Delhi, the Mizo Welfare Association, and the Mizo increased anger among migrants in Delhi. The suspected mur-
Christian Fellowship. Some of these associations are branches der of Loitam Richard, a migrant from Manipur, in Bangalore
of larger associations from back home. Some migrants are in April 2012 led to protests in Indian cities and back in the
members or associates of larger apex groups, such as the Naga north-east, including large protests in Delhi organised by dif-
Students’ Union Delhi, and then of smaller groups around ferent north-east groups. Unlike protests around the AFSPA
their tribal affiliation, such as the Zeliangrong Welfare Asso- that are about what happens back home, protests around
ciation Delhi. These associations carry out important func- racism and violence are in response to what happens in Delhi.
tions. They host political leaders from back home when they This enhances a sense of place and belonging for migrants by
visit Delhi, organise festivals and rituals, underpin support publicly demonstrating discontent and calling on city autho-
networks for migrants, and they mobilise migrants to protest. rities to take action, articulating legitimacy and claims to
Two issues create solidarity among north-east migrants: equal treatment in the city.
opposition to the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA)
1958 and opposition to racism and violence in Delhi. Anti- Place, Identity, Cosmopolitanism
AFSPA protests are held several times a year, usually following Much of the place-making activity by north-east migrants in
an incident in the north-east or a political deliberation in Delhi enables the articulation of both identities from home
Delhi over the Act. Irom Sharmila, a peace activist from and a kind of cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitanism is an impor-
Manipur who has been on a hunger strike in protest over the tant part of ethnic identity in the north-east, especially in
AFSPA for over 10 years, has become a leading symbol in the urban areas. Yet in Delhi, away from the frontier, cosmopolita-
protests. In April 2011, a protest organised by the North East nism takes on additional significance as a way of differentiat-
Students’ Organisation – itself a reflection of north-east soli- ing from the Indian mainstream and contesting archaic stereo-
darity – featured huge banners of Irom’s face and protestors types. North-east migrants demonstrate a number of cosmo-
covered their mouths with black cloth. The protest included politan influences in what they consume, what they reproduce,
Economic & Political Weekly EPW july 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 30 75

and what they relate to. Rather than a place-less universalism, is born in Shillong, Kohima, and Imphal” (Banan 2010). This
North-easterners express a cosmopolitanism captured in a quote opens a feature story on north-east fashion in Tehelka
dual process of cultural enclosure as well as openness to magazine. Later the author adds that fashion trends “hit Gang-
worldly – and explicitly un-Indian – cultural influences tok, Shillong, Imphal, and Kohima before they hit mainland
(Darieva 2011). Cosmopolitanism helps to refute the backward India”. Add to this reputation the very visible presence of
frontier dweller stereotypes and allows for a north-east north-east men and women in fashion boutiques, spas, and
identity capable of incorporating global influences. Although restaurants in cities throughout India and it is evident that
stereotyped as marginal and “backward”, north-easterners there is a transformation of the subjectivity of ethnic and tribal
are linked to global networks in ways that bypass the rest of communities underway. The portrayal of fashionistas and
India. Here I am not just referring to cross-border networks rock stars jar with the half-naked tribesman floating down the
between communities in the north-east and their kin across river on a bamboo raft from the Incredible India commercials.
international borders but to connections beyond the frontier to Paradoxically north-east migrants are scrutinised for the ways
global subcultures. they dress. Their style is coveted yet also used against them in
North-easterners revel in their reputation for fashion and claims that they invite harassment and violence. It constructs
music. North-eastern performers have fared successfully in a separate moral order; because of the way they dress, north-
national music competitions, including Indian Idol (Prashant east people are subject to stereotypes about their lifestyles,
Tamang from Darjeeling won in 2007, Sourabhee Debbarma sexuality, and decency. Yet in neo-liberal Delhi being consid-
from Tripura won in 2009, and Amit Paul from Meghalaya was ered stylish also helps them find jobs.
a runner up in 2007) and the Naga band Divine Intervention Korean popular culture is phenomenally popular in the
won MTV India’s Rock On 2010 competition – notably singing north-east and among north-east migrants. The so-called
in Hindi. These successes are drawn from a rich culture of “Korean Wave” refers to the production and export of Korean
rock, rap, and punk music in the north-east, developed culture – mostly film, television, and pop music – and its phe-
through decades of rejecting Indian popular music and Bolly- nomenal reception in other parts of Asia (Dator and Seo 2004).
wood (Akoijam 2010). Fashion too connects north-easterners The Korean Wave is a crucial element of the cosmopolitan
to worlds beyond India. “If you are trying to spot the next hot identity of north-easterners. It is the preferred cultural refer-
trend, head to the north-east. Forget the metros, street fashion ence point for north-easterners and it orients social life,

76 july 28, 2012 vol xlviI no 30 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

aspirations, and desires away from India to east Asia. In the Korean owners who prefer north-east staff for their know-
second half of the 2000s, Korean popular culture had taken ledge of Korean culture.
such a hold in the north-east that fan clubs were established As cosmopolitans, north-easterners act in ways that are un-
in Kohima and Imphal, posters and other paraphernalia expected – neither the backward stereotypes nor the sympa-
adorned the walls of houses in towns and villages, and thetic construction of the north-east victim are able to account
Korean language courses were being taught in schools and for what it means to be a north-easterner in contemporary
privately. Young people throughout the region started sport- India. This is not strictly an urban phenomenon. Cosmopolitan
ing Korean hairstyles, makeup, and fashion. Korean films identities are exercised back home in the frontier too, in both
and serials were indispensible to both the young and the old. towns and villages. Yet it is in India’s cities that the cosmopoli-
At the Hornbill Festival, the Flagship Festival in Nagaland tanism takes on new meaning as a way to draw upon external
that attracts tourists from all over the world, there is a influences to emphasise difference from the Indian main-
Korean Pavilion where Korean bands perform and where stream while at the same time enforcing ethnic, tribal, and
other exhibitions of Korean culture take place, including a pan-north-east elements of identity. For an older generation
Korea-Naga wrestling match in 2010. This popularity has of, their difference was emphasised by drawing on traditions
opened the door for Korean Christian missionary activity in from agrarian practices and communities, rebellion against
the north-east; evident throughout the region. state control, and folklore. For younger generations, their
Knowledge and consumption of Korean popular culture is difference is emphasised through an even more complex
part of being a north-east youth. The rejection of mainstream milieu of global influences, resilient and reconstructed ele-
film and television is not just aesthetic but bound up in ques- ments of traditions, separatist identities from growing up in an
tions of identity. In Delhi, recreating small pieces of home era of conflict, and a much deeper awareness of India than
involves shared consumption of Korean popular culture. their parents and grandparents. Awareness of India does not
There are Korean movie vendors in north-east neighbour- necessarily lead to acceptance but to more frequent encoun-
hoods, and migrants also download movies through their ters between frontier dwellers and the heartlands and more
computers and trade them with one another. Respondents adept negotiation and navigation of these encounters.
have a folkloric respect for those who watch an entire Korean Indeed, migration from a frontier where the very legitimacy
drama series in one sitting or over a weekend, and word of of the Indian state is questioned to the seat of power of the
such heroism travelled fast. Consumption of Korean culture same state seems paradoxical; yet more north-easterners
does not stop with movies. Style is crucial. In Delhi, north- than ever before are migrating. Evidently, being in Delhi no
east migrants have started Korean-themed hair salons and longer involves a compromise of what it means to be a Karbi,
they work as wait staff in Korean restaurants, usually for a Meitei, or a Naga.

Notes Bhaumik, Subhir (2009): Troubled Periphery: A Studies in South Asian Film and Media, 1 (2):
Crisis of India’s North-East (New Delhi: Sage 265-83.
1 A Konyak Naga festival. Publications). Hazarika, Sanjay (2000): Rites of Passage: Border
2 Donyi-polo is an indigenous faith practised Brekke, Torkel (2006): “Baptism and the Bible in Crossings, Imagined Homelands, India’s East
among several tribes in Arunachal Pradesh. It Bengal”, History of Religions, 45 (3): 213-33. and Bangladesh (Delhi: Penguin Books).
revolves around worship of the sun and moon. Brosius, Christiane (2010): India’s Middle Class: Lefebvre, Henri (1991): The Production of Space
3 Sanamahism is the pre-Vaishnavite faith of the New Forms of Urban Leisure, Consumption and (Oxford: Blackwell).
Meitei. It has very localised forms but essen- Prosperity (Delhi: Routledge). Mirchandani, Kiran (2004): “Practices of Global
tially is the worship of Sanamahi, the creator. Darieva, Tsypylma (2011): “Rethinking Homecom- Capital: Gaps, Cracks and Ironies in Transna-
Lai are different deities that take male and ing: Diasporic Cosmopolitanism in Post-Soviet tional Call Centres in India”, Global Networks,
female forms. Often their worship is accommo- Armenia”, Ethnic and Racial Studies, 34 (3): 4 (4): 355-73.
dated within Vaishnavism (Parratt and Parrat 490-508. McDuie-Ra, Duncan (2012): North-east Migrants in
1997). Dator, Jim and Yongseok Seo (2004): “Korea as the Delhi: Race, Refuge and Retail (Amsterdam:
Wave of a Future”, Journal of Futures Studies, Amsterdam University Press)
9(1): 31-44. NESCH (2011): North-East Migration and
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